Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Scott Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill
Doctor Strange is the 14th film in the Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe. Closer to the mysticism of Thor than the technology of Iron Man, the film’s advertisements tell us to “Forgot everything you know.” Fortunately, you don’t need to do that because this film is a retread of every other MCU movie. Rather than blowing our minds, Strange is a frustrating waste of potential, and exposes the increasing cracks in the MCU.
The film is a standard origin story. Stephen Strange is an arrogant but gifted surgeon who loses the use of his hands in an accident. After surgery fails to rebuild his body, he travels to Katmandu, Nepal in search of the mythical Kamar-Taj. Hoping to be healed, he instead learns ancient powers including time-bending and astral projection.
The mystic element gives the film its greatest strength- the visuals. Marvel has always had good visual effects and scenery, and this film is no different. In fact, it might be the MCU’s best. Strange’s first “trip” through different astral planes and dimensions is coloring and exhilarating, filled with beautiful and frightening images. The actors interact well with the CGI as if it’s a natural part of the world rather than effects added in post-production. The “world-bending” is likely to invite comparisons to Inception, but it pays off. The fight in New York City, in which the city bends and moves to resemble an MC Escher drawing, is one of the best and most inventive scenes in the MCU.
Unfortunately, great visual effects can’t carry a weak film. Any superhero film is anchored by its lead, and Benedict Cumberbatch is not up to the task. In the past Marvel took chances and cast actors who weren’t box office draws but fit the character like Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth. Cumberbatch feels like it was a casting decision made due to his popularity, rather than the ability to play the character. While he gets the character’s sarcastic delivery down, Cumberbatch mostly seems like he’s just doing a mix of Gregory House and Tony Stark, rather than anyone new. Granted, this also falls on the writers- the film only spends about 5 minutes introducing us to Strange before his accident. We’re told his character traits, not shown. Regardless, Cumberbatch ultimately fails to be an engaging, even in the latter half of the film.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mads Mikkelsen is thoroughly engaging as Kaelicius, even if he is underserved by the film. The film has the same problem that the rest of the MCU has- aside from Loki, the villains are thinly defined and have motivations that are vague at best (Lee Pace in Guardians of the Galaxy, Chrisopher Eccleson in Thor 2). Mikkelsen makes the best of his time, bringing the menacing sophistication and humor he brought to ‘Hannibal’, but as a character, Kaelicius doesn’t have much impact.
Similarly let down by the film are Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor. McAdams does what she can with the thankless role of Christine Parker. The film tells us that she is a successful doctor, but she is only shown as the love interest/emotional support for Strange. Parker isn’t even really a person with agency as much as she is a character made to just react to Strange. Ejiofor is in the same boat, as teacher/sidekick Karl Mordo. Ejiofor has proven that he can carry a film with his turn in ’12 years a Slave’. To see him relegated to a poorly written sidekick role, especially when the lead is failing to carry the film, is egregious.
The two bright spots of the film are Benedict Wong and Tilda Swinton. Wong plays Wong, the Master of the Mystic Arts. Rather than the subservient character he was in the comics, Wong is more of a librarian in the film, and provides some of the films better moments. Strange tries to make Wong the subject of jokes, and he instead pushes back, pointing out Strange’s arrogance and lack of respect for powers and a culture far older than knows or cares. Swinton is similarly great, bringing, stoicism, humor, and mischief to her role as The Ancient One.
However, it’s a role rightly overshadowed by the fact that the character- a Tibetan man in the comics- was whitewashed. Swinton is great and is one of the better parts of the film acting-wise, but it’s hard to ignore that this very easily could have been a role for someone like Michelle Yeoh or Constance Wu. The film tries to justify the fact that the Ancient One is a white woman by showing people of all ethnicities at Kamar-Taj, but it feels like the film is playing into the “Mighty Whitey” trope (Where a white character joins another culture and surpasses them in skill/leadership). And the film continues it with Strange himself.
When Strange initially goes to Nepal, he is kicked out of Kamar-taj because he is looking to exploit the power for his own gain. When he is allowed to learn, he is called out for not respecting what he is seeking to learn. It looked like the film was trying to subvert the Might Whitey trope, and have Strange’s journey be one of learning and understanding, caring about a new culture and power. Instead, he uses what he learns to go around Wong and the Ancient One’s rules. And when Strange does mess up and has to fix everything, he does it all on his own. Wong and Mordo, who have been practicing for years, simply stand by while Strange saves the day. We don’t even have a chance to see Wong actually fight. We only see him after defeat. Thankfully, the film doesn’t go as far as to make Strange the new Ancient One, but considering stuff like this has been criticized from film like Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Avatar, one would think Marvel would be smarter than to do this in 2016. Then again, it’s also worth remembering of their 14 films, none have a lead that’s a women or a non-white person.
What makes ‘Doctor Strange’ so frustrating is the fact that it had potential This was a chance for the MCU to really go outside the box and tell a different kind of story, and instead, it rested on tired (and offensive) ideas and the same formula that it has had for 14 films. And one can only see the same story so many times before they hit the point of fatigue. The formula worked with Iron Man and Captain America. But those movies also had character development, emotional stakes, and sacrifice. Now, since Marvel is not only setting up sequels, but a connected universe, everyone has to survive for the next film, and the next team up. Because of that, Doctor Strange has no stakes. The deaths do not have emotional resonance, Strange doesn’t feel like he’s grown that much, and the potential sacrifice doesn’t have any heft, because we’ve seen that it turns out okay- it has to, because there are three more movies coming out. The Hero label feels bestowed, not earned, and that’s the worst type of ending for a Superhero film.